Red Hat's IoT architect Peter Robinson talks about a lean new Fedora

Meet Fedora IoT

© Lead Image © donatas1205, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © donatas1205, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 211/2018
Author(s):

Fedora enters the IoT space with a lean new distro with atomic updates.

Fedora holds a special place in my digital life. It was the distribution that introduced me to the world of Linux. It is also the distribution used by Linus Torvalds himself.

Fedora is a Red Hat sponsored, community driven project that's upstream to Red Hat's commercial line of products in the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) family. As Red Hat is diversifying the RHEL portfolio to handle different use cases, Fedora is also branching out to keep up with its commercial cousin. The Fedora distribution now has three editions – workstation, server, and cloud. The fourth edition is in the works.

During the Embedded Linux Conference & OpenIoT Summit North America 2018 (Portland), I sat down with Peter Robinson, principal IoT architect at Red Hat, who is conceptualizing the fourth member of the Fedora family.

The project has not been officially announced to the press. I was the first journalist to discuss the name of the project with Robinson, so the project is at a very early stage. Before we start seeing some code, many discussions will occur to sort out the way forward.

"A month ago, I did a presentation for the Fedora Council offering IoT as an objective for Fedora. We had a wide range of discussions about various use cases of IoT in which Fedora can play a role," said Robinson.

The Council decided it was worthwhile for Fedora to enter the IoT space. Robinson expected it to become a Fedora spin. To his surprise, the Council decided to create a new edition of Fedora with an official working group attached to it (all three existing Fedora editions have working groups attached to them). The project was approved in March. "We are now in the process of getting all the technical bits and pieces into place to make it happen," he said.

Technical Bits and Pieces

Fedora IoT is intended to run on Linux-capable IoT platforms such as the Raspberry Pi. The plan is to produce images for AArch64, ARMv7, and x86-64 systems. Robinson added, "Other architectures may come with time and interest from the community and vendors."

Robinson said he is in contact with "quite a few" hardware vendors regarding opportunities for providing support, adding, "It's early days, and I look forward to them coming and working with us in the Fedora IoT community."

The container-conscious atomic update model, with its capacity for building lean and flexible systems, is a promising technology for IoT environments, and the plan is for Fedora IoT to leverage Red Hat's investment in Project Atomic and other container-based products.

"There are still many traditional users who are used to conventional updates with dnf and RPMs," said Robinson. "But we are lucky because we have an entirely new canvas where we can experiment, where we can be bleeding edge without having to worry about legacy or traditional users."

Robinson has the luxury of creating a purely atomic edition, which will not have any DNA of the traditional RPM model. The cherry on top is that Fedora IoT will have the ability to layer RPMs on top of the core base of the operating system, which will be purely atomic.

Since it's a Fedora edition, it will be based on the current version of Fedora. Robinson is starting off with Fedora 28's code base and will move to 29 as it becomes stable. But Fedora has a 13 month life cycle, which is very short for IoT use cases. The Fedora Atomic Host project team has already addressed the need for a longer support model by moving the stable branch from Fedora 27 to 28 to 29, which, according to Robinson, has been a seamless roll forward. Thanks to this work, Fedora IoT will also be able to move from one major version to the next major version without any issues.

The base image of Fedora IoT is expected to have around 400-500 packages at the maximum. Additional functionalities can be added using containers and other technologies. The idea is to keep the base as small as possible. Ideally, the developers would like to keep it under 1GB or 800MB.

Current work is primarily focused on the core platform, to provide a solid foundation for others to build various IoT verticals on top. Robinson said he expects a number of open source IoT platforms and home automation frameworks will want to be part of the project.

For the Community, By the Community

Fedora IoT will be developed just like other members of the Fedora family. Although many Fedora developers happen to be Red Hat employees, the Fedora project is fully community driven.

Robinson said that the reason he is working on this project is because he wants to engage the community. "It's true that Red Hat is actively and heavily involved in the Fedora distribution, but if you look at some of the presentations from Matthew Miller, the Fedora Project Leader, more than 50% of the Fedora community comprises of non Red Hatters."

At the moment, Robinson's role at Red Hat covers a number of different areas. The work he is doing in Fedora IoT is not equivalent to a full time job. Although others from Red Hat will be involved, Robinson expects the larger open source and IoT community will want to participate in the project.

"I have a lot of ideas around IoT, but obviously there's a lot of things that I haven't thought of. People have different opinions, so I will be talking with them to work out the best route for Fedora IoT," he said. His ultimate goal is to create a small, fast, and secure edition of Fedora that's fast moving.

Does the World Need Fedora IoT

The world has no shortage of Linux-based operating systems for IoT devices, so why do we need another OS? The IoT market is emerging as a multi-billion dollar industry, so it makes sense for Red Hat to invest resources in the platform.

"There is no reason for an IoT-based Linux distribution to be that different from a traditional Linux distribution, especially when it comes to things like updates and upgrades," said Robinson. "I don't see that an IoT distribution needs to reinvent all these wheels where we've got a perfectly good solution."

The many tools and technologies of the Red Hat ecosystem could make it easier for the Fedora developers to build the new system. For instance, Robinson might get a helping hand from CoreOS, a company that Red Hat recently acquired. CoreOS is the creator of Container Linux, a Linux distribution at the heart of the atomic updates movement.

"What really excites me about CoreOS, from an IoT point of view, is that they have a very good updates platform. There will certainly be some components in Container Linux that will be suitable for Fedora IoT," said Robinson.

When asked about comparisons with Ubuntu Core and other atomic/IoT efforts, Robinson said it's all part of the open source experience. "The IoT space is huge. Without a doubt, there are similarities, but there are differences too. I actually started talking (there are a number of videos on YouTube) about using Fedora and OSTree/Atomic for IoT before Ubuntu Core was announced. I don't follow closely what Ubuntu Core is up to, but I'm sure there's crossover in functionality. I communicate with a number of Linux distributions around a number of IoT platforms, low-level hardware layers, and open standards in order to improve the ecosystem as a whole. There are a lot of problems to be solved in the IoT space, and it's not just about competition, although a bit of healthy competition is obviously good."

According to Robinson, his work mostly involves "getting a device to boot so other people can do cool stuff on it," but with the Fedora IoT project "hopefully I'll get a chance to do some cool stuff as well."

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